Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Idaho are working on research that could make it easier to detect algae blooms.
Excess amounts of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and pets.
The USGS tool, which is still being tested for its accuracy, won't be able to detect toxins in the algae, but it could alert organizations that monitor water bodies — like the Department of Environmental Quality or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to watch out for places where a toxic bloom might form.
“Doing some relatively simple calculations, we can identify the water bodies that have high likelihood for having algal concentrations above normal," said Tyler King, a hydrologist at USGS in Boise who presented an update on the research at DEQ's water quality conference this week.
The ongoing USGS project uses multiple databses to produce satellite images of water bodies in Idaho about every four days.
"We download that image from the satellite and process it to calculate the concentration of algae," said King.
By doing this on a pixel-by-pixel basis, the researchers can create maps that show the likelihood of concentrations of algae, helping field crews determine which reservoirs, and where within them, to do testing. More than 15 advisories for harmful algae were issued in the state last summer.
"It's been an emerging concern," said Brian Reese, a water quality analyst at DEQ. People are increasingly aware of algae blooms, he said, as they are out recreating in Idaho's waters.
But DEQ has limited resources and is typically able to send staff to test for toxins only after people call in to report sighting of blooms.
And while the department does have a satellite tool available that allows it to reliably monitor about 30 water bodies in Idaho for this purpose, the calculations produced by the USGS research could bring that number closer to 30,000 because the images are more detailed.
DEQ and other organizations, including public health districts, are discussing how to use this system, once available, to communicate with the public about the presence of algae blooms.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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